Don’t Throw Your Employees Into the Deep End

Imagine enrolling your child for swim lessons at a place that promotes the following:

Our standard, one-lesson policy for novice swimmers is to walk them over to the deep end and push them in. Those with the best swimming potential will quickly figure out how to keep their heads above water. Those who can’t tread water will sink, confirming they weren’t cut out to be swimmers. Advance payment required, no refunds.

Poor instruction and worse parenting? Yes. But it’s also the prevailing approach to promote talent into stretch roles. In the deep end you go. If you are truly high potential, you’ll figure it out. If not, sorry we put you in the wrong place on the potential/performance grid. No refunds.

What a waste. Just as any responsible swim instructor will provide appropriate instruction to ensure the safety of every student, intelligent organizations will see each stretch promotion as an obligation to instruct and support.

By definition, stretch assignments mean the individual isn’t fully ready for the new job. Perhaps the new role requires a higher level of skill or judgment, a leap in job breadth or role complexity. In any case, before you hear a big splash by the deep end of your organizational pool, it would be wise to consider five principles.

Look before they leap: With today’s ultra-lean human capital resources, providing substantial support for every promotion isn’t practical. But realize the cost of failure due to neglect. Strategically place support resources where the odds of failure are high or the cost of failure to the individual and organization are high. My experience points to first-time moves to general manager roles, global assignments and high-pressure product development or critical customer relationship jobs.

Teach transition dog paddling: Building strength in transitions to challenging work is a fundamental leadership competency. It should be a core part of anyone’s personal skills portfolio and a systematic element of any talent development program. Be transparent in coaching and training to communicate the risks of jumping head first into a “deep waters” role. Further, provide development in the three fundamental swim strokes of big transitions: expanding self-awareness of their impact on others early, gaining a lifelong habit of aggressive learning and self-development rather than relying on old skills and acquiring solid start-up practices and stress-reducing resiliency habits.

Preview unseen currents and riptides: Proactive coaching on stretch job challenges will better prepare talent for unknown hazards. One of the big moves in my company is promotion to division president, where plenty of trials await. We’ve developed a start-up briefing, based on interviews of successful incumbents passing along advice and experiences from the first year on the job.

Make it a team swim: Loneliness in stretch roles is typical and can compound the difficulties of a transition. Similar to a geographic relocation, those newly promoted begin without the circle of familiar faces they left behind. Having a mentor or at least a sympathetic ear can be a lifeline. I’ve seen organizations assign a trusted external coach for the first six months or a skilled internal mentor who has been there.

Keep an eye on them once in the water: The direct manager should play an active role. The more enlightened bosses will recognize their destiny is tied to new leader success and will provide assistance at start-up. Equally important is to keep checking how the new swimmer is doing throughout the first year. Sometimes signs of new leaders struggling aren’t apparent for months. Managers who withhold help throughout the first year are like lifeguards taking a noontime nap. Managers can likewise fail to toss in a life preserver due to a misguided fear of undermining the new leader’s confidence or seeing it as disrupting the “sink or swim” trial.

“Sink or swim” isn’t a smart policy for swim classes, and it isn’t the most effective approach to talent development in times of big job transitions. Providing great transition support is like telling your talent to come on in, the water’s fine.

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of Dancing with the Talent Stars. He can be reached at